I don't fit in any boxes!

Everybody seems to have a place but me.

Published June 26, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I wish I could fit into boxes. You know, the kind that people put each other in to understand each other. The kind that help people relate and find common ground. The kind that help people make friends and know where to look for friends.

But every time I try to get into one, the people inside say I don't fit.

I tried the "married" box, but everyone in it said, "You're 26 and you've been married for five years? Why the hell'd you do that?"

I tried the "parents" box, but they said, "Sure, you can hang out with us. So you're a dad? That's great. Let's talk about our fancy new houses and 401Ks."

I even tried the "employed" box, but everyone said, "Oh, you and your fancy Ph.D. are way too smart for us. Why don't you go play with all of your intellectual buddies."

The last time I tried the "guys" box, they said, "You look like you're 16 and need a sandwich, dude. Go play some video games or something." But I can't help it. I've got a high metabolism and an aversion to dairy. And meat. And I like video games.

I even asked my wife if I could get into the "husband" box, and she told me that she thinks I'm a bit too goofy and abstract to be a real husband.

So I'm standing out here all alone, outside all of these boxes full of people, wondering who the hell am I and whose 40-year-old midlife crisis I'm about to have. Any ideas?

Out of the Box

Dear Out of the Box,

Yes, I have some ideas, and I think you are probably smart enough to make use of them. To do so you may need to change your frame of reference slightly, but I think you can do that.

First, let's put aside the box metaphor. The box metaphor is vivid and descriptive but it isn't diagnostic. It tells how you feel but it doesn't represent the problem in a way that makes it solvable. There aren't really any boxes to climb in or out of is what I mean. It just feels like there are boxes. There is just human behavior and human emotion. That's what we're talking about.

There may be reasons you prefer the box metaphor. It aptly captures a feeling of imprisonment. But let's put it aside for the moment and talk about human emotion and behavior.

You seem to be saying that when you are with certain other people you would like to feel comfortable and fluid but instead you feel awkward and misunderstood. I think you are also talking about having different frames of reference and different expectations, so that communicating is not easy but difficult. You expect people to pick up on what you are saying but they don't. They look at you blankly. They don't get it. And when that happens you feel like you're not making any sense. It is momentarily disorienting, so you briefly question your own frame of reference and assumptions. You are perhaps also indicating that you have observed, as an outsider, that communication between members of these groups seems to be effortless; but when you communicate to those same people you get different results. You have also noticed that you aren't invited to join these groups -- they may do certain activities but they don't ask you to join them; they seem to be excluding you.

Also, you harbor a certain amount of disrespect for these people because their values and aspirations do not match yours. They have boring hobbies and interests. So you feel conflicted about wanting to join their groups in the first place. You would prefer to be rejected by more interesting groups.

They also may talk in a way that is somewhat imprecise, uninspiring and careless. So, as much as you would like to feel included, you may also feel that they aren't people you really want to spend a lot of time with, and that you don't really want their respect or care what they think.

Oh, I almost forgot. We are also talking about roles. You play certain roles but you don't play them the way other people do. You don't play them in a mainstream way. There's nothing wrong with playing a role in an offbeat way. But again, because roles are so heavily about expectations -- husbands do this, employees do that -- you are likely getting disapproval because of the way you play these various roles.

So you're in a bind. Perhaps that is why it makes you think of boxes -- because you feel caught, or trapped, and the people around you also seem trapped.

These are all legitimate problems. I would say that if you are serious about improving the situation that some incremental progress is possible.

First, think hard about what you actually want, and what is achievable. Try to bring what you want closer to what is achievable.

Think in terms of particulars. Do you want to go bowling with the other dads? You can probably do that. They may talk about houses and 401Ks but you don't have to talk about those things if you don't want to. After you have been bowling with them a few times you can even say to them, "Dads, I am a dad too but I don't want to talk about houses and 401Ks. I want to talk about ... [whatever it is you want to talk about]."

But don't say that right off the bat. You're going to have to use some tact. If you are successful in arranging a bowling trip with the other dads, make sure on the first trip that you show some respect. You may be smarter and more interesting than these other dads, but newcomers have to show respect. People are in groups because it makes them feel comfortable. If, as a newcomer, you make them feel uncomfortable, they won't want you in their group. So don't challenge them. Instead, consider it a genuine honor and a privilege to be included. Laugh at their jokes politely. Try to get along. Don't be an ass-kisser and don't be untrue to yourself. But try to get along, even if you feel uncomfortable at first. Consider it a victory if you can just go bowling.

Also, recognize and admit a few things about your own perspective. I'm guessing that you are pretty sensitive. Many of the things people have said to you were probably not meant to hurt your feelings. We sensitive people are unusual; most people are not as sensitive as we are. So they don't know they're going to hurt our feelings when they say things to us about our appearance or our manner. They're actually trying to be friendly. One thing guys do to be friendly is to pretend they are trying to hurt each other's feelings. We insult each other as a way of taking away the power of insults. It's a way of dispelling the group fear. We do this because we are all afraid. So let them insult you a few times. It means they like you.

These are a few ideas. There are more, but this is a start. Good luck.

P.S. Remember: There really are no boxes.

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